As the nights draw in, the countdown is on for November 5, or Bonfire Night. In a usual year, thousands of Brits would be wrapping up warm and heading out into the cold to marvel at burning effigies and see fireworks illuminate the chilly night in memory of a centuries-old scheme to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

Due to COVID-19, public events in 2020 are likely to be non-existent, but that doesn't mean you can't swot up on the history and plan where in England you'll head next year to experience this very British tradition.

"Remember, remember the fifth of November" is how the rhyme about the failed Gunpowder Plot begins, and the story behind Guy Fawkes Night (as the event is also known) is as captivating as the fireworks displays that commemorate it.

An upwards shot of a large gothic-style building with a tall clock tower
The present day Houses of Parliament, London © ribeiroantonio / Shutterstock

The history of November 5: gunpowder, treason and plot

In the early 17th century, some English Catholics had hoped that their new monarch, James I, would relax the hardline Protestantism favoured by his predecessors. One band of Catholics was so frustrated when this situation failed to materialise that they devised a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament, while the king, his eldest sons and most MPs (Members of Parliament) were inside.

The plot progressed seamlessly until an anonymous tip-off led to Guy Fawkes being rumbled on 5 November 1605, as he guarded 36 barrels of gunpowder in the vaults beneath the House of Lords. He was tortured for days before confessing and revealing the names of his co-conspirators, and they were later sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Fawkes was not the instigator of the scheme – he was an explosives expert enlisted by ringleader Robert Catesby – but, as the one who was caught, he has become synonymous with the dastardly plot ever since. 

The celebrations

Bonfires have been lit to celebrate the plot being foiled every year since the traitors’ grisly executions and, over time, effigies of treasonous schemer Fawkes began to be burnt on the pyres. Children would build scarecrow-like "Guys" out of old clothes stuffed with flammable materials, and display their efforts in the streets, asking for a "penny for the Guy".

Guys still go up in flames at displays across the country while adults consume mulled wine, children wave sparklers, and everyone battles the cold as fireworks fill the sky.

A child on an adult's shoulders holds a flaming torch. Everyone in the crowd is dressed in black and white stripes with a red neckerchief, and many are waving flaming torches
The traditional parade through the streets of Lewes involves dress-up and burning torches © DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / Getty Images

Where to enjoy fireworks displays in England in 2021

With large-scale events prohibited across the country in 2020, let's look ahead to 2021. Here are some of the best places to see parades, bonfires and fireworks displays in England.

Toast Fawkes with a Bloody Mary in Lewes, East Sussex

Lewes puts on one of the UK's best Bonfire Night celebrations, and with historical precedent. In 1555, Catholic Queen Mary I lived up to her nickname, Bloody Mary, when she had 17 Protestant rebels burned at the stake here. Up to 60,000 visitors flock to see effigies of the Pope – alongside caricatures of divisive modern-day figures – get incinerated in memory of the martyrs. Six different Bonfire Societies, some dating back to the mid-19th century, parade the streets in medieval garb with flaming crosses, sending banger-filled barrels cracking and fizzling into the river.

Have a history lesson at the Royal Gunpowder Mills, Essex 

If you’re keen to hear more about the history of the plot and the science behind the explosive black powder, the Guy Fawkes Festival at the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey, Essex, is sure to light your fire. The annual, family-friendly event at this former gunpowder factory brings the story to life with a historical reenactment, plus the chance to learn about how gunpowder is made and its uses throughout history. While this wasn’t where Fawkes procured his deadly stash, come nightfall when the bonfire is lit and the fireworks are screaming through the air, it sure is fun to imagine. 

The view of London from Alexandra Palace. Residential streets in the foreground give way to London's skyscrapers at dusk, with some fireworks visible in the sky
The views of fireworks across London: another great reason to enjoy Bonfire Night at Alexandra Palace © Andrea Pucci / Getty Images

Get a bird’s eye view at Alexandra Palace, London

As the place where it all began, London usually hosts displays both big and small, free and ticketed. But the top prize for 2021 surely goes to the Fireworks Festival at Alexandra Palace. The grounds of the imposing Grade II-listed building are the site of a two-day extravaganza, with a funfair, performers and live music in addition to a traditional bonfire and more fireworks than you have "oohs" and "ahhs" for. Best of all, Ally Pally (as it’s known to Londoners) sits on top of a hill, so you’ll get a panoramic view of other displays across the city.

A man has a burning barrel on his shoulders as he walks through a crowd of people
A man carries a burning barrel through a crowd to mark Bonfire Night in Ottery St Mary © Mypurgatoryyears / Getty Images

Enjoy a barrelful of excitement in Ottery St Mary, Devon

Thought to have originated some time after the foiled plot of 1605, the tradition of Tar Barrels in the little town of Ottery St Mary in East Devon is truly a dangerous endeavor. What began as a torchlight procession of rolling flaming barrels through the town has escalated to an adrenaline-pumping event. Each of the pubs in town puts forth a barrel, which is soaked in tar for a week before it’s set alight. Then people, who have seemingly taken leave of their senses, hoist them on their shoulders and run through the town for the entertainment of the thousands who come to watch.

Admire the display at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire 

For an altogether more refined Guy Fawkes Night experience, the bonfire and fireworks at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire won’t disappoint. The backdrop for the evening’s pyrotechnic display is the "Palace of the Peak", a huge stately home once used as the setting for Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s residence, in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Take a tour of the lavish house and vast grounds then warm up with mulled wine and a traditional hog roast before the evening goes out with a bang.


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Walk through England's pagan past on the country's oldest road  
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Article first published in September 2019, and last updated in October 2020

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This article was first published Sep 23, 2019 and updated Oct 21, 2020.

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